"I consider the objectives that have been set for the Defence Ministry to be generally accomplished,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said on March 14. However, Moscow’s stated objective of fighting terrorism has clearly not been accomplished; Isis is still very much there. In your opinion, what could cause such a sudden move of Russia?
Russia’s stated objective of fighting terrorism was not its main objective from the start. Russia’s campaign focused mostly on shoring up the Assad regime with attacks on the more moderate opposition rebels in Syria. Russia’s real objectives in Syria seem to be securing the Asad regime’s ability to survive and jumpstarting diplomatic negotiations on Syria with Russia at the table. It achieved those objectives. Russia also withdrew in part because of the enormous costs of the campaign. Russia is already funding another war in Ukraine and has enormous obligations due to the need to integrate Crimea into the Russian economy. This is occurring at a time when the Russian economy is in severe trouble due to persistently low oil prices. The withdrawal was announced before the Russian public became aware of the true costs of this war – a war that was not universally popular.
According to Russian media, the withdrawal of Russian troops from Syria could lead to end of sanctions against Russia. What do you think about it?
On the withdrawal of Russian troops leading to the end of sanctions, I doubt it, particularly regarding U.S. sanctions. They are in place because of the annexation of Crimea and the war in Ukraine. As long as those issues remain unresolved, U.S. sanctions will continue. Regarding European sanctions, that is a bit more complex. EU unity over sanctions is fraying, but that has less to do with Syria and more to do with internal European issues and certain countries concerns about the economic impact of sanctions to European businesses.
Georgian citizens as well as citizens of Russia and many European countries have left for Syria to join Islamic State. In 2014 the Georgian government amended the Criminal Code to criminalize participation in international terrorism, recruitment for membership in a terrorist organization, and failing to hinder a terrorist incident. In addition, Georgia’s Defence Ministry offered contractual military service to young people living in the Pankisi Gorge. In your opinion, what additional preventive measures should the Georgian government take to stop its citizens travelling to Syria?
The biggest recruiting tool for extremist groups is disenfranchisement. When minority groups feel oppressed and either economically or socially disenfranchised, they are more likely to fall prey to extremist messages. In addition to offering contractual military service to people in the Pankisi Gorge, any efforts to improve the economy and employment opportunities beyond the military would be a good idea. It is also important not to marginalize any ethnic groups in the country. Marginalization of Muslim minorities often pushes youth towards extremism, so it is not just what the government can do in the short term, but what it can do to make sure that Georgian society remains open, pluralistic and tolerant of all citizens of Georgia.